A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a drive to visit friends and family in her small hometown out in western Pennsylvania. It was what you'd expect from a region that has been dealing with economic recession since the steel and rail industries dried up and blew away forty years ago – sweet and beautiful in places, blighted and depressing in others, but with the first faint bloom of spring on the trees whispering of better days to come – except for one strange, glaring thing.
It was one of those digital billboards, looming and gaudy amid the neglected sprawl of Altoona, and displayed on it was something I'd only heard about in passing. According to that blinking monstrosity, Jesus was going to ride back to Earth on the wave of a planet-annihilating earthquake that would summon The Faithful to Heaven and consign the remaining mass of sinful humanity to the yawning doom of the damned. This was to happen on May 21st, roundabout six in the evening (Eastern Standard Time), and the last dregs of the un-chosen would be completely scourged from the Earth by October.
By the time we left for home, I had spotted three more billboards of varying sizes and technologies espousing the same apocalyptic message, and upon our return, I did some digging. As it turned out, these things had been popping up all over the country; even here in liberal Boston, I discovered the existence of one of these billboards not three miles from where I now sit. Something called Family Radio Worldwide, in the guise of a fellow named Harold Camping, laid out the scratch to buy all that billboard space across the continent, because ol' Harold had consulted his trusty Bible, done some wildly questionable math, and pulled the exact moment of the End Times out of his cash-filled hat.
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Oh yeah, the money has by-God been rolling in ever since Mr. Camping sprayed his end-times predictions into a Family Radio microphone. But I'm quite sure that has nothing to do with anything. Those billboards were not an investment seeking future profits, and the incredible sum of money Mr. Camping has raked in as The Day loomed closer was just simple people trying to get in good with God before the elevator took them to the top floor.
Somewhere, P.T. Barnum is slapping his knee and giggling like a titmouse.
Well, guess what? It was already Sunday in Australia when the alleged Biggest Saturday Ever dawned across Eastern Standard Time, and that whole continent remained obstinately Down Under instead of rapturously Up Above. Maybe every single living person there is a blasphemous sinner, but the sun has been crawling across the northern hemisphere for long enough to convince even the most fervently devout that, mmmmmm, maybe they've had their pockets picked once again by yet another wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.
Forgive this leap to judgment, but I have a sneaking suspicion I know just exactly what type of person goes in for this breed of apocalyptic nonsense. Let me guess: you're a Christian of the evangelical stripe, white, and your ears are forever attuned to the dog-whistles of social conservatism. You voted for George W. Bush twice, and would have happily done it a third time if given the chance. It's almost certain your whole life is caving in around your ears, and you are utterly unable to cope. You can't make the mortgage payments, your job got outsourced to somewhere, and you seethe at the presence of non-English-speaking brown people around you, even when they mow your lawn and empty your trash and serve your food. You think Rush and Beck sit at the right hand of God, and you've been voting Republican ever since Ronald Reagan invited Jerry Falwell to the White House. You are a follower, an adorer of authority in all its permutations. You smell like fear.
Your life is caving in around your ears, to an incredibly large degree, because you have supported – with your time, your money, and your badly-spelled signs at Tea Party rallies – the very politicians, corporations and power-brokers who have savaged your future. You believe in the demigod of free-market capitalism (because Rush and Beck tell you so) even as that system steals from you, your children and their children to come. You see the writing on the wall and perceive it as runes carved there by devils and socialists and Muslim fellow-travelers, because you have been well-trained to do so. You would not know the truth of your life if it voided its bladder in your face, because you are inculcated with a world-view that is sustained by hatred, distrust, fear, and the clannish bonding of the cult-bound who think as you do, and so are “saved.”
Yours is the church of cognitive dissonance – the more truth is presented to you, the more vigorously you reject it in favor of the pain-cave of your dilapidated ideals. This day of doom is your best option, and your greatest hope, because the spiraling dissolution of your stunted follower's faith leaves you no other options save the blessed simplicity of oblivion. You are thoroughly suicidal, at bottom, and when that end does not come for you (and, psssst, it's not coming), you will be forced to cope with the truth of Sunday's rising dawn, and the sad fact of your continuing existence.
I think you might live your whole life and die without taking responsibility for the pernicious nature of your influence on our culture, but I hold out hope for you. Jesus did not ring your bell today, and maybe that means it's time to re-evaluate your role in things.
I am a baptized Christian, and I have faith, insofar as I very much believe that within the first four books of the New Testament can be found a superior blueprint for living a good, moral life. I am educated, insofar as I know the Book of Revelation is coded language to the faithful under the shadow of ancient Roman repression, and not a literal roadmap charting the end of the world. I am not afraid of the dark. I am still here. So are you.
So I guess we still have to deal with the world as we find it.